Redeemer Presbyterian Church II -NYC
Bill Long 8/29/05
The Rev. John C. Lin and Sunday Worship
So, I settled into the lightly cushioned auditorium chair at Hunter College about 10:15 a.m. (Worship began at 10:30). Many rows were roped off, thus leaving probably 1500 or so seats for worshipppers. Since NYC has had a long-standing tradition of not beginning the Church "year" until after Labor Day, Tim Keller was away on vacation with his family. I dare say that this is one of the cultural inheritances of NYC life that Redeemer won't try to "transform."
In any case, by 10:28 there were still hundreds of open seats, but by 10:32 nearly all of them were taken. The crowd was mostly young with, what was initially astonishing to me, about 20% of it being single Asian women. But, maybe this really isn't so surprising. The key to successful church growth in the past 30 or 40 years has been to work with unchurched or "lightly churched" people; it simply doesn't work if you think you are going to pull the wealthy pillars out of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church to begin your own church. It is also the case that churches can often provide an easy, inexpensive, nonthreatening and helpful way to enter into the bewildering complexity of a bustling city. And, the church can provide a community for all kinds of people, mostly yong people, who are taking the first steps in building their lives in a new place.
And so I settled in to worship. Wherener I go to a new church people seem to be friendly enough but always leave one or two seats between me and them. I don't know if it my looks or, probably more likely, the need to maintain "distance" even as one "reaches out," but it happened again at Redeemer. I felt comfortable in any case as we began.
The Worship Service
The second astonishing thing to me was how traditional the service was. Oh, I knew that Redeemer offered several "Jazz" services and other expressions that fit the world of a more contemporary crowd, but this service (billed as "traditional") was startlingly traditional. I don't know when the last time I heard 1000-1500 people, mostly young people, sing "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty," or hear that many people utter a familiar prayer of confession (though they replace the traditional "Assurance of Pardon" with a "Words of Encouragement"). The worshippers were treated to a 30-minute sermon and, by the time communion was celebrated and the benediction was said, it was 11:50 a.m. Only a few seemed to be in any rush to get out of there, and several people stayed around to speak with friends or to consult with deacons or others who were prominently placed in the auditorium. Thus, the surprising thing about the worship is that it was so traditional. No words projected on big screens. No catchy choruses. No worshipers raising their hands in charismatic gratitude to God. Four hymns, the Apostles' Creed, Scripture reading, the offering (I don't think anyone dispenses with that) and a simple cracker and grape juice communion. I was, in fact, invigorated.
The Rev. John C. Lin, Preaching
As befits the Reformed tradition, the preaching of the Word is one of the two central acts of worship (along with communion). There was no pulpit, however, and the Rev. Lin (who appeared to be about 30 years old) had only a music stand between him and the congregation. But his message was a perfect expression of the values that I laid out in the previous essay. The text on which his sermon was based was James 5:1-6, where James excoriates the rich for their oppression of the poor, and stresses that God's judgment has already come upon them. In excellent homiletical fashion, Mr. Lin began with a story derived from the "modern world" (a story in a recent NY Times) and then brought us back to the biblical text where he made three clear and hard-hitting points on the deceptiveness of wealth before closing with an offer of the Gospel to the listeners and a moving story about his family's history.
He entitled his sermon, "Theological Reflections on Bling" by which he meant reflections not simply on the American cult of acquisitiveness but on our use of things to denote status. The Times story he referenced had to do with how dogs are now fashion accessories in trendy parts of Manhattan. And, not simply any dog. The evolution of "cool" dogs by which you communicate to others what you think you (and implicitly they) are worth is a hazardous business because you might discover that your beloved Westie of a few years ago is now far surpassed by Bichons today. This humorous entry into the problem of the day enabled him to make his three points: that the Scriptures, and especially the passage in James, have much to say about the creation, corruption and redemption of wealth.
Central to his exposition of the biblical understanding of wealth was his mention of the Jubilee year--a sort of biblical "reset" button--where every 50 years all property would be restored to the families that originally owned it. When he ably exposited the doctrine, I smiled, not because I hadn't heard this before but because the words could have come out of our discussions 30 years ago at GCTS.
But that didn't make them any less relevant today. Along the way he quoted sources that spoke of wealth as diverse as the Merchant of Venice and Jennifer Lopez. And, he closed with a poignant story of his own family that showed his great appreciation and affection for his father, an immigrant from Viet Nam in 1973, but at the same time revealed a sadness he had about the role of materialism in his father's life. All in all, I thought it was a marvelous sermon, theologically astute, with good proportions of humor and social criticism, ending with an invitation to his hearers to accept the Gospel which he proclaimed.
Beginning in September, Redeemer will be initiating 100 small groups to discuss the "Vision" that the members have for the future of the congregation/movement. It seems to me that the best days are ahead for Redeemer.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long